On February 9, 1960, Adolph Coors III was driving to work in Golden, Colorado, when he came upon a yellow Mercury sedan on the side of the road. It was a cool and crisp Tuesday morning, and "Ad"—as the CEO and heir to the Coors Brewing Company throne was known—had already fit in his daily workout. The 45-year-old father of four should have been riding high; after all, he was de facto royalty atop a burgeoning beer empire, albeit one that would later become the target of boycotts over alleged racial discrimination, union-busting, and far-right politics.
The driver of the yellow car made sure this Coors scion wasn't around for all of that.
Determined to win a big score, escaped convict Joseph Corbett had concocted a scheme to kidnap Ad Coors for a hefty ransom. His original plan probably did not call for gunshots to be fired after he confronted his mark on a bridge. But when a local milkman happened upon Coors's car, the engine still running and radio playing, he noticed a blood stain, and the hunt was on.
A massive law enforcement search ensued for the closest thing the state had to a dauphin. The FBI was called in to help, and Coors's wife, Mary, received a ransom note demanding $500,000. The feds identified a man named Walter Osborne as the chief suspect—his car had been seen in the area and was later found burned in Atlantic City—but he was nowhere to be found. When the FBI realized Osborne was really an alias of Joe Corbett, they made the convict a Top Ten fugitive. Ad Coors's body was discovered by hikers south of Denver that September, and Corbett was caught the next month in Canada. He was convicted of the murder, spent about 19 years in prison, was released in 1980, and committed suicide in 2009, after being diagnosed with cancer.
In his forthcoming book, The Death of an Heir: Adolph Coors III and the Murder That Rocked an American Brewing Dynasty, Phillip Jett explores the bungled kidnapping, subsequent murder, and the strange aftermath. We called him up for some more perspective on one of the highest-profile kidnapping attempts in American history.
How did the Coors family handle the initial kidnapping? It seemed like they got plenty of help and sympathetic press—more than a typical victim's family would have, which isn't exactly shocking, but still pretty glaring.
The FBI had as many men as they could put on it—it was the largest manhunt since the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. They suspected pretty early on that he was dead, because there was blood at the scene, but they didn't know for sure. It was very frustrating for family, but ultimately after months and months passed by, most of the family just moved on and thought they'd never hear anything ever again. It took nine months to catch the kidnapper, so it was very frustrating for law enforcement, also.
I wanted the book to really focus on the impact on the family. Everyone I talked to in my research said Ad Coors had a great life, loving wife, and a happy family. They had four children at home, and suddenly the husband is taken, and they didn't hear anything. It really took a toll, but at the same time, the Coors family kept the business going. They continued to work, which initially seemed a little bit cold to me, but they had this huge company they have to run. Due to the power of the Coors family at the time, they got the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, and he made it his mission to try and find this man. They ultimately did.
Coors is an international brand now that everyone knows, but back in the early 1960s, when this happened, they were a bit more confined to the region, right?
Colorado, California, and the surrounding area—it was a family business. It wasn't some multinational corporation run by a diverse board of directors. There was a [certain mysticism] about the Coors. It was a very popular beer, particularly in the 70s—a lot of movie stars were seen with Coors beers. It wasn't until the 80s that they became a total national brand.
What exactly do you—or did police at the time—suspect went wrong with Corbett's original kidnapping attempt?
The kidnapper was not expecting Ad Coors to put a fight or a struggle. From what I can tell, Corbett had it carefully planned. Based on the evidence and what was found, he planned to kidnap Ad Coors, take him to a remote location, camp out for a few days until he got the money, and then leave. Ad would have lived, but from what I can tell and the blood on the scene, the evidence indicates that Ad Coors did not want to get in the car and get shackled. He put up a struggle, and they fought on the bridge. It appears that Ad made a run for his vehicle and was shot twice in the back. I think that the kidnapper panicked or was angry and shot and killed him. That's what went wrong. Rather than shooting in the air or shooting somewhere else to stop him, Corbett just killed him.
Why did Corbett go after American royalty, so to speak, rather than an easier or less sensational target?
He didn't say very much after he was arrested, so there's a lot about him that we'll never know. Based on what I've found, which were prison records and people who knew him during school and college, he was a very bright guy, but he had some issues early on. He wanted to be something great that he couldn't achieve—he wanted to be a Coors more or less. He wanted to be wealthy.
I don't think he intended to kill Ad Coors, but he had a really bad temper, and I think he was a very cold-blooded man. I'll just leave it at that.
How did you get into the mind of Corbett without distorting the facts or over-playing your hand as a reporter given the time that passed—and the fact that he isn't around?
I have boxes full of information and a 700-page FBI report. They interviewed Corbett, and he did talk some. I talked with the prosecutor and some other people. I also had Corbett's medical records from prison, and psychiatrist reports. I had a lot of information on either what he said or how he thought. There are some areas where I had to take some liberties, but a lot of it is things that he revealed about himself or others revealed about him.
It seems like you were a bit amused or surprised at how bad this guy was at covering his tracks—that stuck with you.
The kidnapper/murderer was a very intelligent man, [and] supposedly had a genius IQ. But I was amazed at how many mistakes he made. He planned this for about two and half years. Ad Coors lived on a ranch in the country, outside Denver, and the killer would go out there and park his car on the highway. He's got a bright yellow car, and he left his real license plate on the car. When the police were interviewing neighbors, everyone kept saying, "Well, I saw this strange yellow car," and somebody got a partial license number. Corbett didn't change his appearance. He didn't change his alias. That was probably the most surprising thing, because if I'm planning to kidnap someone like Mr. Coors, and I'm supposedly that intelligent, I think I could have done a better job.
Learn more about The Death of an Heir, out September 26, here.
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